ESA plans for 2016 'mid life evolution' of its Ariane 5

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The next version of the European Space Agency's Ariane 5, the Mid Life Evolution (ME), could be operational in 2016 with a payload to geostationary transfer orbit capability of 11,200kg (24,600lb), 16% more than Arianespace's in-service Ariane 5 ECA.

Developed by ESA with industry and manufactured by EADS Astrium, the ME, the fifth variant of the Ariane 5 since the Generic, will also provide a 21,000kg to low-Earth orbit capability.

While the lower stages of the Ariane 5 are unchanged, the ME upper stage will require a new engine, the Vinci, now undergoing ground tests, that can achieve three restarts in orbit and a longer fairing to encapsulate two large satellites.

To achieve a 2016 in-service date ESA needs its member states' ministerial councils in November and in 2011 to approve the funding of the rocket.

"[We will] take into account the Ariane 5 ECA experience...and treatment of major obsolesence of equipment and hardware," says ESA, for which the operational Ariane 5 would be 14 years old by 2016.

ESA has had its Future Launcher Preparatory Programme looking to develop a replacement for the Ariane with a service entry of around 2020. The Ariane 5 ME, with its start of operations in 2016, could be that future launcher.